In this Sunday’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, the one that most enthuses me is the one from Galatians, which begins thusly:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.’
When you think about it closely, this is an interesting and, to the modern ears, unusual melding of what the postmodern world, in its libertine way, thinks are very disconnected concepts. The first concept: Freedom. The second: A commandment to serve others.
To the uninitiated, the question immediately arises: How can it be freedom if it involves a commandment? How can freedom lead to servitude? Oh, sure: We understand that we can freely choose to love others — hey, the 1960s flower children conjoined those words with their concept of “free love.” But, still, to move in one sentence from freedom to a form of subjugation — subjugation to another’s well-being (through love), even if not to that other’s stated whims — is, well, not exactly how the modern mind works. It’s not that the two notions contradict each other, but it is that they seem like a non sequitur: two unrelated thoughts, going in two different directions.
But Paul is doing something larger here. This is all part of Paul’s extensive, somewhat complicated explanation, running through many of his letters (not just this one), about the difference between the old, Mosaic law, on one hand, and on the other hand Christ’s law of the New Covenant. The old law binds us: It tells us what not to do (theft, adultery, murder, etc.). All of those strictures, Paul writes in Galatians, still apply — if only to show us, by our failure to live up to some of them, that we are imperfect creatures dependent upon God’s grace for salvation.
The difference is that the new law involves not strictures, but freedom from mere strictures: It is a law not of what not to do, but of what we should do, what we are free to do at any time and which we indeed can do if we let God’s spirit flow through us. That which we are free to do is to love our neighbors as ourselves. We choose to love. We are free to love. When we love, truly and for the other’s sake, we are not bound by sin but instead are empowered to grow, to create, to begin anew.
The later verses of today’s Epistle make Paul’s point clear: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
It is in that sense that we are free to love. There is no law against such things, so we are free to do them. Indeed, the “commandment” to do them is not a commandment carrying punishments against certain sorts of action, but a commandment carrying rewards for the sorts of actions that come from love, joy, peace, patience, etc.
It is not a commandment that restricts, but one which enables. And that which enables us is that which frees us.
I leave you with the refrain of a guitar song we sang in chapel services at my grade school in the 1970s, one which melds freedom and love:
“It’s a long road to freedom,/ a-winding steep and high./ But when you walk in love,/ with the wind on your wings,/ and cover the Earth with the songs you sing,/ the miles fly by.
Yes, they do.